Director John Doyle burst onto the Broadway scene with a classic 2005 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, where the actors played instruments onstage. (Patti LuPone lugged around a tuba.) He’s spent the last few years Off Broadway as producing artistic director of Classic Stage Company, and he’s departed that post with a little gift, a return visit of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 2002 musical A Man of No Importance. In a nod to his past much of the company is again outfitted with instruments, serenading as well as singing, and adding to the show’s modest, if genuine, charms.
The musical is based on a 1994 film that starred Albert Finney as Alfie, a bus conductor driving a route in Dublin. It’s the time of the Beatles and From Russia with Love, yet while London’s beginning to swing Alfie’s cloistered life in priest-ridden Ireland can’t help but recall Philip Larkin’s poem “Annus Mirabilis,” which begins “Sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me- ).” But Alfie has a bustling inner life centered on Oscar Wilde, and when not on the buses he runs a “semi-professional” (i.e. amateur) theatre company dedicated to his plays. Meeting a new driver, the handsome Robbie, awakens carefully repressed thoughts of the love that dare not speak its name, and engaging in chats with a pretty rider, Adele, confirms that it’s time to put The Importance of Being Earnest aside and finally stage the controversial Salome, with his new friend in the titillating title role. This does not sit altogether well with the likably fusty members of his troupe, who perform at his parish church, nor his older, protective sister, Lily.
The composers and book writer Terrence McNally had previously collaborated on the Broadway-sized musical Ragtime. I didn’t see its original production, which starred Roger Rees, but Doyle has as usual sized it to his barebones liking, reducing the cast, ditching showy choreography, and trimming the running time to about 105 intermission-less minutes. He’s also credited as “designer,” which means a few chairs, mirrors, and religious paraphernalia. This can be confusing–it’s not always clear which characters are being played by actors who are doubling parts, and it takes a few minutes to figure out the era (it initially seems much older than the Sixties). It can also be enchanting, as when a tambourine “transforms” into a dinner plate. There’s no mistaking the aesthetic for anyone but Doyle’s, and for the most part the material thrives with the reduction.
It’s a “closet” piece, an endangered species in the out-and-proud era of Love, Simon and Bros, but one written with empathy, a flinty Irish warmth, and a sense of community that reasserts itself after ill-absorbing a shock or two. While Alfie’s travails (which take a bitter turn) are the focus the key “unimportant people” in the story all get to express their secret frustrations, in song. The music may not be top-shelf but all of it is good: highlights include Lily’s lament, “Burden of Life,” about having to look after Alfie as she’s wooed by a prospective suitor (who disapproves of her brother); Robbie’s ingratiating “Streets of Dublin,” as he tries to draw out Alfie from his Wildean shell; and Adele’s “Love Who You Love,” as the two friends share confidences. Alfie’s poignant “Man in the Mirror” is among the seriocomic fantasy scenes that bring him together with Wilde, but the emotions are real enough.
Doyle’s lean, no-fluff approach doesn’t work without the right players, and he has them. Two Tony nominees from last season, the great veteran Mare Winningham (Girl from the North Country) and newcomer A.J. Shively (Paradise Square), impress as the exasperated but not unsympathetic Lily and the encouraging (perhaps too much so) Robbie. Shereen Ahmed is a winsome Adele, and an outstanding supporting cast that includes Black and Asian-American performers all get their Irish on, which is delightful. When the heterosexual Finney played Alfie he played it from the outside in, emphasizing the character’s external discomfort; the openly gay Jim Parsons portrays him from the inside out, finding nuances in the garrulous Alfie, who talks the talk about can’t quite walk on the Wilde side. Parsons, a stage veteran, isn’t a powerful singer but communicates the thrust of his songs emotionally, and excels in those moments when Alfie is still, and silent, his turmoil roiling just underneath the surface. Doyle’s CSC swan song may be Unimportant, but his production offers considerable value.